South Carolina Rejects Christian Vanity Plates

You don’t have to drive long in South Carolina before you see a bevy of bumper stickers with an overarching Christian theme. Some I’ve witnessed recently include: “Pro-life and Christian,” “American needs a faith lift,” “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” and the usual flood of Jesus fish. It’s rare to find one of those “Darwin fish” eating the Jesus fish, or even rarer to find a bumper sticker proclaiming atheism.

One form of Christian expression we won’t see on the back of cars and trucks here is a specialty license plate that proclaimed “I Believe” with stained glass and a cross on it. That license plate was authorized for production last year by the South Carolina state legislature — but none have been distributed. A group of progressive pastors including Rev. Dr. Neal Jones of Columbia’s Unitarian church challenged the legality of the tag in court.

Last week, a federal judge proclaimed that the tag was unconstitutional:

“The ‘I Believe’ Act’s primary effect is to promote a specific religion, Christianity,” U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie wrote in a decision released Tuesday.

State laws promoting one religion over others have been illegal in the United States since the nation’s founding, Currie wrote.

That law hasn’t stopped South Carolina from approving and promoting the tag. The idea for the tag came from Lt. Governor Andre Bauer, who has his eye on the governor’s mansion now that Gov. Sanford’s hiking trip in Argentina has made the state a national laughingstock. Bauer was quick to brand the judge as a “liberal judge appointed by (President) Bill Clinton,” who has it in for Christians.

Bauer said the ruling represented “another attack on Christianity” and that Currie “was using her personal wishes to overrule the Legislature and the will of the thousands of South Carolinians who want to purchase the tags.”

The real shame, pointed out by Judge Currie, is that while the state of South Carolina faces unemployment approaching 12 percent, legislators who vote against helping the unemployed, a financially strapped education system, and dwindling state budget, leaders have chosen to spend money fighting for an obviously illegal license plate to gain support of the right wing political base in the state:

“Whether motivated by sincerely held Christian beliefs or an effort to purchase political capital with religious coin, the result is the same,” she wrote. “The statute is clearly unconstitutional and defense of its implementation has embroiled the state in unnecessary (and expensive) litigation.”

Rev. Jones echoed that sentiment:

Jones said Bauer’s attempt to promote one religion was part of a long tradition of state officials spending taxpayers’ money on lawsuits that try to do unconstitutional things like upholding racial segregation and keeping women out of the now-coed Citadel.

“It’s really sad,” said Jones, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbia. “I don’t know how much taxpayers’ money has been spent on this case at a time when our state is seeing deficits and making budget cuts.”

But, right wing politicians, whether in South Carolina or elsewhere, see money as no object when they need to pander to their base. Bauer, continuing in pander mode, bemoaned the decision calling it discrimination against Christians:

“When you can express yourself as a non-Christian, and not as a Christian, there’s a real disconnect,” Bauer said.

The truth is, as long as cars have bumpers, both Christians and non-Christians alike have all the rights they need to express themselves. They don’t need a state sanctioned license plate, too